Although undoubtedly formulated with commendable intent, the Key administration's Harmful Digital Communications Bill is inadequate in some areas. In 2012, the New Zealand Law Commission reported back to current Justice Minister Judith Collins with its analysis, a report entitled Harmful Digital Communications: The Adequacy of Current Sanctions. The report notes that the ease and speed of online verbal bullying and its distribution require some imposition of penalties for regular offenders, particularly in the context of those who drive someone to commit suicide. This bill establishes a civil enforcement regime, and will amend Section 179 of the Crimes Act to create a new offence, "incitement to suicide." It is intended to provide effective remedies and proportional responses to instances of cyberbullying which will compell abusers to take down destructive online content, cease harmful conduct and publicise the identities of perpetrators. It is intended to encompass all digital communications and will be assisted in its enforcement and implementation by a suitable information technology expert. Clause 19 of the proposed bill defines what what is meant by harm, establish due penalties, assess the factors involved and amend the Harrassment Act 1997, the Human Rights Act 1993 and the Privacy Act 1993.
Given the Tyler Clementi tragedy in the United States several years ago, I have no problems at all with the intent and purpose of this bill. However, I do have one or two questions about its scope and context. Cyberbullying often occurs amidst other forms of offline bullying, so I recommend that the Ministries of Justice and Education work together and request assistance from educational psychologists about establishing what relationships do exist in this area. Given such research, the government might want to undertake more stringent antibullying legislation, policy development and codes of behavioural practise within schools. I do agree with Justice Minister Judith Collins that no-one wants to criminalise those who engage in low-level verbal abuse alone in the context of cyberbullying, or offline bullying either. However, other sanctions could be imposed- school suspension, financial reparations to bullying victims and other penalties may need to be considered if cyberbullying and offline bullying occurs within the school context, as well as education about the origins and consequences of bullying for both the perpetrator and her or his victim.
The other question is one of scope. Coincidentally, this bill is being introduced to Parliament in the context of public revulsion at the predatory sexual behaviour of several young Auckland teenage males, who set out to intoxicate young women and under girls in order to have sex with them- the so-called "Roast Busters." As the co-parent of a (thankfully post-adolescent) daughter, I share this revulsion and disgust and I hope these young sleazebags pay the due penalty for their offensive attitude toward women. Trouble is, while the Harmful Digital Communications Bill does refer to the Human Rights Act, it only refers to racist harassment or sexual harassment online. This is inadequate. Needless to say, sexual orientation and gender identity need to be included in any amended version of this bill. As I am sure that non-Christian religious and secular organisations alike will also recommend, religiously-based cyberbullying should be included within this bill. Given disturbing research that demonstrated brutal and grotesquely abusive physical bullying against people with disabilities from the UK House of Commons, so should ableist cyberbullying. Socio-economic grounds and other identity-based forms of cyberbullying should also be included.
How do international LGBT organisations deal with questions of cyberbullying? In July 2013, the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network released Out Online, a report that analysed LGBT child and adolescent experiences online. Sampling 5680 individuals from twelve to eighteen years of age, the study found that half of all respondents stated that they were being harrassed or bullied online, while one-quarter of respondents felt unsafe. This occurred at three times the perceived experience of adverse online interactions compared to straight peers- although this is not to discount the parallel experiences of straight "gender non conformist" males who might experience "para-homophobia" due to mistaken misidentification as gay or bisexual on the basis of personal behaviour, appearance or cultural preferences. For such young straight men (and women), this can be serious as well, and similarly needs to be addressed. Out Online also tackled questions of negative self-esteem, clinical depression and bipolar disorder onset, and personal educational barriers as a result of cyberbullying, situated within a context of similarly aggressive offline bullying.
In 2010, Sameer Hinduja and Justin Patcha reviewed research on LGBT schoolyard bullying and specifically examined its online significance in the context of anti-LGBT cyberbullying. Analysing 4400 LGBT students from an adjacent school district, Hinuja and Patcha found that seventy two percent of these students had been the target of bullying, while thirty-six percent reported that they had experienced cyberbullying compared to heterosexual peers. Counselling, support and proactive inclusive antibullying policies and programmes were shown to be effective in this context.
In 2010, at Iowa State University, Warren Blumenfield, Robyn Cooper and Cathy Curtis examined 444 LGBT adolescents and their accounts of perceived cyberbullying. Doctored photographs, misleading online information, and "poll" targeting of victims were all reported in this context. More seriously:
45 percent reported feeling depressed as a result of being cyberbullied, 38 percent felt embarrassed, and 28 percent felt anxious about attending school. More than a quarter (26 percent) had suicidal thoughts.
This research was published within the International Journal of Critical Pedagogy in March 2011. Two of the authors of the aforementioned study, Warren Blumenfield and Robyn Cooper also noted within the same journal that sometimes, adequate responses to anti-LGBT cyberbullying required attention to school culture and organisational reform, and that given their stigmatised and closeted sexual orientation and gender identity, there were significant problems if adolescents needed to report such abuse to their own parents- and sometimes, teachers.
New Zealand Law Commission: Harmful Digital Communications (2012): http://www.lawcom.govt.nz/sites/default/files/ministerial_briefing_-_harmful_digital_communications.pdf
GLSEN: Out Online (2013): http://action.glsen.org/page/-/Out20%Online.pdf
Cyberbullying and Sexual Orientation (2011): http://www.cyberbullying.us/cyberbullying_sexual_orientation_fact_sheet.pdfâ€Ž
"ISU researchers publish national study on cyberbullying of LGBT and allied youth" ISU Report: 04.03.2010: http://archive.news.iastate.edu/news/2010/mar/cyberbullying
Warren Blumenfield and Robyn Cooper: "LGBT and Allied Responses to Cyberbullying: Policy Implications: International Journal of Critical Pedagogy: 3:1: 2010: 114-133: http://libjournal.uncg.edu/index.php.ijcp/article/viewFile/72/57